Salk: Take a breath — how to understand Mariners’ approach to improving

Dec 2, 2022, 12:30 AM
Mariners Luis Castillo...
Ty France and Luis Castillo shake hands during a Mariners game against the Yankees on Aug. 9, 2022. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Alright, Mariners fans. Time to take a deep breath.

I know the 2022 season got us excited. I know we want and expect big things from this group. I know some still feel burned from decades of frustration and ownership groups that haven’t always made good decisions or added the necessary piece(s) to get over the hump.

But when this group committed to the first real rebuild in the history of the Mariners franchise, they decided to make this organization become something it had never been before: healthy. A healthy baseball organization makes good choices for the right reasons. And making good choices in today’s game means seeing the whole board.

So while I share the same breathless desire to see them build on the success of this playoff run, I don’t need them to do it via free agency. There are some quality free agents available this year (I really like Trea Turner and Michael Conforto in particular as good fits here), but drastically overpaying for long-term contracts is how you end up with Richie Sexson and Carlos Silva. Or like the Texas Rangers. I want the Mariners to get better – much better, even – but I don’t need them to spend their way into a big old mess while trying to get there.

Let’s start with some realities.

1. The Mariners are a middle of the pack organization in terms of things like revenue generation, ticket sales and TV money. They aren’t in the unique position of the Dodgers, Yankees or Mets. Nor are they akin to the A’s, Pirates or Rays. They are roughly 15th in revenue and they will likely be in the top 15 in terms of spending. My hunch is that could grow into the top 10 as revenue increases with interest and they have enough players worth the money.

2. The Mariners have taken care of their own. As Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto told us Thursday during his weekly show with us on Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk: “Right now, we have more future commitments 2024 and beyond then all but two teams in baseball. So we have spent our money, we have built larger payrolls, we’ve just done it in a different way than maybe… the basic 2023 roster look might suggest. And that’s where draft, develop and trade comes in – that we are sometimes looking for shorter-term fits (that) won’t affect the 2026 payroll when all of this (payroll) really starts to crest, and you’ve got multiple players making $25-plus million dollars.”

Related: Mariners’ Dipoto explains how their future impacts approach to payroll

He is talking about the commitments they have made to Julio Rodríguez, Luis Castillo, Robbie Ray, J.P. Crawford, Eugenio Suárez, Evan White and Andrés Muñoz. And when he talks about the payroll cresting, he is referring to the huge raises expected in arbitration for George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Cal Raleigh and others.

No baseball team has unlimited funds, and so the best at managing their situation have to look not just at their current payroll but at their future commitments and expectations.

Now go back and read Jerry’s quote carefully.

“We are sometimes looking for shorter-term fits (that) won’t affect the 2026 payroll.”

He isn’t saying the Mariners’ payroll won’t rise or that they are done adding impact players to their current roster, just that it is important to keep an eye on what is happening down the road. That is exactly what 29 other clubs do, but Jerry is showing us the courtesy of explaining it. Why do you think they targeted Teoscar Hernández? He is an impact player on a one-year deal, and that will give them an opportunity to see if he is someone they should invest more into.

Could the Mariners sign a top free agent? Sure. If one was willing to sign a six- or seven-year, market value deal. But will they (and should they) overpay on a longer contract that will prevent them from retaining their homegrown nucleus? No. And while it’s easy to say “just do both,” the reality is that having a young nucleus as good as this one means those guys are going to make some significant money first in arbitration and then in contracts.

Dipoto is betting that what he can build by drafting, developing and trading for talent that will supersede the value of that mega free agent deal, both now and in the future. And my hunch is that if they are able to do that for another year or two, they won’t have to pay the above-market premium associated with being the Seattle Mariners.

Look, I want the Mariners to win as much as you do. Trust me. When they win, more of you listen to the radio station, so I have a career rooting interest in their success (just like all radio hosts do for their local teams). And I think they need to add more impact talent in order to really win.

But I don’t need that talent to come from free agency. Trea Turner and Michael Conforto are great. Are they a better duo than (for example) Bryan Reynolds and Kolton Wong, two players who would need to be acquired via trade? Not according to their recent WAR numbers. And acquiring the latter two would come with significantly more flexibility to retain your own talent and be active in acquiring other players down the line because they wouldn’t come with as long of a commitment, and you’d get a younger (star) player in Reynolds who would still be under control for three years.

The Mariners don’t need to sign free agents to prove their commitment to winning. They started to prove it by spending big on Julio and Castillo. Now they need to build a winning team, and they need to create a winning culture and retain their incredible nucleus. They need to add to it, also. But there isn’t one prescribed way to do it.

Pete Carroll’s motto is “Win Forever.” I think Jerry is trying to build an organization that is capable of that. He accomplished the first goal: creating a nucleus of young, talented players. He’s trying to now make short-term additions to put them over the top without affecting his ability to retain that nucleus. And he is continuing to maintain his farm system (including three picks in the top 30 this year) to sustain it.

There’s a lot that has to go right, but that’s true of every team in a league where only one gets a ring each year. I don’t know if they are going to win the World Series in 2023, but I think they have a solid plan to give them as many bites at that apple as possible.

I know there are some who will read this as me “shilling for the team.” I’m not. I don’t care whether the Mariners make money or what their owner spends. But I’m trying to look at the situation and see how Jerry Dipoto can take the realities of his position and turn them into a consistently winning franchise. And based on his comments to us on Thursday, I think he has a pretty good plan.

Talking Mariners Podcast: Breaking down Dipoto’s comments on payroll

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